Two years ago, Sergey Kovalev’s status as one of the top-three pound-for-pound fighters in the world was nearly universal. Then he lost back-to-back fights to Andre Ward, in November 2016 and June of last year. His image lost a little bit of its menace.
Back-to-back losses to Ward should not necessarily have done this to Kovalev–especially since the first loss was razor-close and hotly contested. All three judges scored it 114-113 for Ward. I had the same score, but for Kovalev–six rounds even, with Kovalev winning on the basis of his Round 2 knockdown.
Ward won the rematch by TKO. The first two-thirds of the fight were once again highly competitive, but Ward’s body attack (and perhaps a few of the low-blows that referee Tony Weeks failed to call) broke Kovalev down and left him unable to adequately defend himself in Round 8.
Ward is among the very elite fighters of this century. There are Hall-of-Fame fighters who never gave him the kind of tough bouts that Kovalev did. Those losses may have established that Kovalev is not quite on Ward’s level.
They also demonstrated that he is close enough to Ward to still be considered great.
Ward retired following their second battle, leaving Kovalev once again the top fighter in the world at 175 pounds. But where he was studiously avoided before, his losses to Ward, and the passing years, have made him a more attractive opponent to his fellow light heavyweights.
Against Vyacheslav Shabranskyy last November, Kovalev looked as dominant as ever, smashing the Ukrainian in two rounds. Shabranskyy might not be one of the very best at 175 pounds, but he was a legitimate contender, with impressive wins to his credit.
Kovalev faces fellow Russian Igor Mikhalkin on Saturday night. Mikhalkin handed Thomas Oosthuizen his first professional loss last May, by wide margins on the cards. So he clearly has world-class skill. But with just nine knockouts in 22 fights, he probably doesn’t have anything like the power necessary to compete with Kovalev.
A likely next opponent for Kovalev will be the winner between Sullivan Barrera and Dmitry Bivol, who also fight on Saturday night. One thing is certain, despite his two losses over the past two years, Kovalev remains the man you have to beat if you want to call yourself the man at 175 pounds.